My friend Jess Allen just posted this Economist article that I just can’t believe:
…washing with soap and water makes people view unethical activities as more acceptable and reasonable than they would if they had not washed themselves.
Previous studies had shown that feelings of disgust led to more moral behavior — the subjects wanted to right the wrong feelings. And the famous “broken windows” study, applied by Giuliani in his cleanup of New York in the 80s, showed that an environment in disrepair leads to further crime and delinquency, as it lowers the behavior norms.
This study made subjects first feel clean by unscrambling words associated with cleanliness, or by washing their hands. Both these groups then said that actions such as eating the family dog, or using a kitten for sexual play, were about 5 or 6 on a scale of “wrongness”, versus 6 or 8 for the control group.
Physical purification, in other words, produces a more relaxed attitude to morality. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Pontius Pilate is portrayed in the Bible as washing his hands of the decision to crucify Jesus. Something to think about for those who feel that purification rituals bring them closer to God.
I am curious if anyone else will reproduce these results. One of the ten precepts of yoga is saucha, or cleanliness: keep your body and mind clean. There are also so many cleansing rituals: neti pots to clear the sinuses, fasting to improve the digestion, sweaty yoga to elimitate toxins, special breathing to clear the lungs and mind… and that’s not even starting on what they’d do with a long piece of cloth in ancient times. I’m sure these practices have physical value, but it’d be a rude awakening to hear they are making morality more difficult.